TRANSLATING EARTH, TRANSFORMING SEA
Shawn Bitters, Joan Hall, Laura Moriarty
Curated by Andrea Packard, Text by Andrea Packard
Born and raised in Ohio Joan Hall learned to sail as a teenager and developed a life-long love of the ocean that continues to inform her art. Her large-scale mixed media sculptures convey her experience of sailing beyond sight of land and observing the vastness and mutability of nature. While logging more than 25,000 miles at sea, she has witnessed the increasing spread of plastics and other pollutants worldwide. As a result, she has become an environmental activist and her works have begun to directly address the ways in which our waterways have been transformed through Human industry. Her recent artwork also explores some of the ways in which human and marine biology are analogous and interdependent.
As a student, Hall was especially drawn to ceramics papermaking, and printmaking-labor-intensive processes through which materials are transformed by heat or pressure. Like Bitters and Moriarty, she uses two-dimensional art forms to create relief works and sculptures. For example, she created works such as Acid Ocean (2012) through layering handmade papers that she has cast, printed, reinforced, reshaped, and folded into a multi-layered evocations of netting, seaweed, and other forms swept up in sea currents. On closer inspection, viewers see that Hall punctuated the work with shells and ocean detritus cast in paper and that she attached forms to the wall with numerous bottle cap pins cast in resin and embedded with plastic.
Similarly, seen from a distance, Your Existence is Not Unlike My Own (2008-2012) appears like an ocean swell carrying foam, shells, and netting, and unknown debris. Such works captivate viewers with the undulating rhythms, subtle transparencies, and patterns evoking water currents. Spanning more than 20 feet, the work is not an image so much as an environment that elicits visceral reactions. Striking contrasts-from its densely layered masses to its airy palette and open contours-remind us of water’s protean nature as it both sculpts the shoreline and dissipates into atmosphere.
In Your Existence is Not Unlike My Own, Hall used washed-up fishing nets to make collagraph plates with which she printed and embossed images of the net on paper. Making her own paper with the hand-beaten Japanese fibers such as abaca and gampi-materials that transform through immersion in water-Hall emphasizes an organic vitality in tension with the netting. After printing the image of the net, she adhered the paper onto Mylar to add structural support before excising the net’s openings with a scalpel. Thus printed and reinforced with acrylic before manipulating it sculpturally, the paper netting can simultaneously appear flat and three-dimensional, organic and artificial, open yet confining.
Creating Your Existence is Not Unlike My Own soon after her recovery from cancer, Hall decided to embed the work with circular images of the first cancer cell recorded via microscope. Other circular prints placed throughout the work include microscopic images of coral and reproductions of Hall’s PET scans. Thus the work draws attention to the way both humans and sea creatures are endangered by pollution. Envisioning her own health, the history of medicine, and marine biology as tangled up in a sea-swept net, she presents an image of entrapment that is also a tour de force of ingenuity and resilience.
A centerpiece of Translating Earth, Transforming Sea, is Hall’s Hello Sailor (2012), a 12-by-14 foot tableaux made of steel panels that tilt like the listing deck of a ship. Sprawled across the deck are encrusted forms that appear to have been hauled up from the ocean or washed ashore. On closer inspection, we see that the distressed patina of the steel has been etched with a compass design and dozens of sailor tattoos. Images of mermaids, anchors, coiled ropes, and the names of ships appear like worn memorials evoking past lives in half-forgotten code. We see that the detritus is a heavy rope and crab pot that Hall has encased in paper pulp mixed with metal fragments to add a patina of rust. Encrusting the crab pot with salt, Hall further evokes the materials decay and become covered with accretions. In its entirety, the commemorative structure and memorial tone of Hello Sailor suggest the varied traditions of sailing and fishing that now exist only as history.
Incoming Tide provides the exhibition’s most direct evocation of environmental degradations. Spanning an entire wall of the gallery, Hall creates a ceiling-high wave composed mainly of blue and green colored plastic that she has collected on her many trips to shorelines, including sites affected by the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Students of art history cannot view Hall’s blue arc without recalling the sublime beauty of Katsushika Hokusai’s ukiyo-e print The Great Wave off Kanagawa (ca. 1831). However, whereas Hokusai’s fishing boats appeared insignificant compared to the towering wave and distant grandeur of Mount Fuji, Incoming Tide represents an ocean not only diminished, but utterly displaced by industry. The fishermen are absent from this contemporary view, replaced by the products of commerce.
Incoming Tide also brings to mind the trash vortexes that have been forming in ocean gyres around the globe. Instead of portraying the beauty of rising water and foam, Hall attaches her plastic wave to the wall using hundreds of glass pins that refract light and sparkle, evoking the night-time glow of bioluminescent organisms at sea. She surrounds the found scraps of plastic with ultramarine blue paper castings that she made from discarded sailing blocks. Transforming such navigational tools into ineffectual paper forms, she provides new symbols for collapsed systems of control. Her inventive detail, craftsmanship, and beautiful composition encourage us to confront harsh realities. Bearing witness to the artifacts of the Anthropocene, Hall models some of qualities we will need more than ever: analysis, creativity, empathy, and resilience.